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March 12, 2006

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – A very different Florida team brought the Gators a second straight Southeastern Conference tournament championship.

Joakim Noah, one of Florida’s three new starters this season, scored with 11 seconds left, then blocked a shot at the other end and the 16th-ranked Gators held off South Carolina 49-47 Sunday in a sloppy championship game in which the Gamecocks nearly pulled off the improbable upset.

“It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, and luck plays a big role in that because the ball could’ve went a different trajectory,” Noah said. “It’s just a great feeling right now. In my mind, it just went by so fast. But … the next thing I knew, I mean, we won.”

Now Florida (27-6) can focus on improving on a second-round loss in last year’s NCAA tournament. Corey Brewer, a starter this season and last, said the Gators have their sights set on winning the national championship.

“It is not about getting to the Sweet 16. We’re in the tournament to win it all. We won the SEC tournament, and now we want to win the NCAA tournament,” Brewer said.

Florida could use a couple days to rest up for its 13th NCAA tournament appearance. The Gators talked of wanting revenge against a team that swept them in the regular season, and they led the entire way but never put away South Carolina in a grinding performance.

The Gamecocks (18-15) already were the lowest seed ever to play in this championship and had played in this game only once before – in 1998.

With winning the title their only chance of reaching the NCAA tournament, they were trying to become the first team since Arkansas in 2000 to win four games in four days. They almost pulled it off.

“That’s all any coach wants – a chance to win the game in the last minute of the game,” said South Carolina’s Dave Odom. “We had that chance. I have no regrets. None. No regrets.”

South Carolina guard Rocky Trice tied the game for the only time at 47 with 42 seconds left when he drove through the lane and scored on a layup. Brewer missed a short jumper, but Noah followed up with the winning basket.

“Unfortunately, Noah’s size and arm length and sense for the game, and he’s got a great sense for the game, won out,” Odom said. “He was there when the ball was deflected or missed and put it back.”

South Carolina had a chance to win or force overtime, but Tre Kelley’s 3 missed. Renaldo Balkman tried to tip the ball in to force overtime, but Noah got a hand on the ball to clinch the Gators’ fifth straight victory. Asked to describe the final play, Noah was succinct.

“He went up, and I blocked it,” said the son of former tennis star Yannick Noah.

Balkman thought the Gamecocks were going to pull out the game, and he collapsed on the court for a couple minutes in disbelief after the final buzzer.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said of the block.

Brewer finished with 16 points for Florida, while fellow sophomores Taurean Green and Noah, added 10 and eight, respectively.

Balkman, Tarence Kinsey and Kelley each had 12 points for South Carolina, and Balkman grabbed 11 rebounds.

The Gators came in as the first team other than Kentucky to reach three straight title games since Alabama made four consecutive appearances from 1989-1992.

South Carolina, which joined the SEC in 1991, was blown out 86-56 by Kentucky in its only other title game.

Florida should have done the same with the Gamecocks turning in their worst shooting performance of the season (30 percent) as they missed more shots (42) than the Gators attempted (41). The Gators instead hurt themselves with 18 turnovers, including 12 steals by the SEC’s stingiest defense, which kept them from adding to an 11-point lead in the first half.

“We kind of allowed them to get back in and get closer,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Neither team started well, and the fatigue apparently got to the Gamecocks who hit only three of their first 24 shots. The team that hit 10 3s to upset Florida in Gainesville on Feb. 8, missed their first 13 3-pointers.

The low point for South Carolina was a stretch in which the Gamecocks missed four shots on one possession before Balkman finally scored. That might finally have got them started because Sheldon hit a 3 on the next possession followed by another 3 by Kelley that pulled them within 21-14 with 3:11 to go.

Odom credited Florida’s zone with tempting his Gamecocks.

“They kind of lured us into a web, their web, and we took those shots,” Odom said.

Balkman stole the ball from Brewer and fed Kinsey for a layup with 39 seconds left that cut Florida’s lead to 25-18 going into halftime.